First Impressions Last
The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, or the Notre Dame Cathedral might be used to define Paris, but popular tourist attractions do not necessarily constitute the first impressions about the French capital. Rather, a conversation with a localite, right after landing at the Charles de Gaulle airport, is more likely to present a perfectly transparent portrait of the city.
Our chauffeur at the Lengpui airport, in Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl, once aspired to be a footballer. Destiny, as it so often does, had differing plans in store, but it does not stop him from bragging about how he is friends with a former Indian national team player, Lalrindika Ralte.
Our first thing on the agenda was to try out local delicacies, and a buzzing, variegated café just happened to be around the corner. Amid the hills’ serenity, and the breeze’s tranquillity, there was a fervid, ongoing discussion in the table right across.
There were proud representatives of Generation Z, except that on their agenda, Pathaan’s box office collection, Zendaya and Gigi Hadid's looks in Indian attires, and Nattu Nattu’s Oscar triumph did not find a place. The conversation focused on one, and only one topic – football. More precisely – Indian football.
First impressions last, and for those who have never stepped foot in Mizoram previously, it proved to be the quintessential testimony of the state’s love for the sport. As if, the entire region had conspired to scream – Smile, if you love football, because you are in Mizoram.
Church, Football, Religion – The Mizo Order
The Rajiv Gandhi Stadium is not the nation’s biggest, with a capacity of merely 20,000, but enveloped by scenic hills, with wind that is cold, but not harsh, being the constant companion, it could well be the most soothingly picturesque.
Beyond the main stadium, however, there are innumerable football fields across the state. Tetea Hmar, the secretary of Mizoram Football Association, elaborates on it by saying – “There are two things you will find everywhere in Mizoram. One is the church, the other being a football field.”
Strangely enough, both signify religion here. Our emphasis is on the latter.
Clouds had transitioned from a soothing white to ominous grey in what felt like a split second. Our chauffeur shared an important piece of information – “Even those who predict futures, won’t be able to predict when it’ll start raining in Mizoram.”
Football, Bread, and a Scale in Between
Yet, with audaciously little consideration for the weather, kids, some as young as five, had arrived at the stadium – and in enormous numbers. Accompanying them were their parents, many of them being daily wage labourers, who had just made the courageous sacrifice of a day’s income, for not only the ward’s development, but from a macrocosmic perspective, for football.
“We are daily-wage labourers. We need to work hard every day to earn our bread, but when my son is playing, I can sacrifice everything,” says Zohmingmawii, who is accompanying her son, Laldinpuia.
Can football and bread be really weighed on scale? Where does this sacrifice stem from?
“The coach told me that my son has huge potential. I believe that, and so, if my son really can make it big in football, what’s stopping me from sacrificing a day’s work to take him to the games?” she elaborates on the rationale.
In a minute, her son, alongside hundreds of his mates, will enter the field, for their upcoming match of the Reliance Foundation Naupang League - a competition, wherein over 1300 youngsters, ranging from the age of five to thirteen, compete for glory, and whilst doing so, take the first, and the most important step towards turning a professional.
Ours is a very small state, in one corner of Northeast India, with zero presence of multi-national companies. I could not have dreamed about this sort of a collaboration with any organisation. This project with the Reliance Foundation is a dream come true for Mizo football, but at the same time, it is just the seed that we are sowingTetea Hmar, Mizoram Football Association Secretary
Laldinpuia, despite having just embarked on his journey, is allowed to harbour dreams of becoming the next Cristiano Ronaldo, as he proudly shows us the ‘Siuu’ celebration. His teammate, Albert, however, might not be too amused, being a big fan of Lionel Messi.
“His parents work on daily wages – for those who worry about whether they’ll have food on their plates, how can it be possible t pay football coaching fees? So, I am training him for free. I had started an academy with just three-four kids, back in April 2022. But then, Reliance Foundation came forward, and now I am training over 70 kids,” informs his coach, Anant Gurung.
The Haalands, Among the Messis and Ronaldos
In the distance, a couple of kids had already started wreaking havoc – running rings around the defenders, and scoring goals for fun.
Upon inquiry, we are informed that they happen to be brothers – Lanrinfela and Vanlalnunrempuia, six and eight years of age respectively, but more importantly, sharing a staggering 181 goals between them.
Away from the Ronaldo-Messi debate, perhaps twin Erling Haalands in the making? Their father, Lalchatuana, is not the perfect Alfie Haaland parallel, but not owing to any fault of his own.
“I always wanted to be a footballer. Unfortunately, my father was a farmer, and he could not afford proper coaching,” he tells us, with a discernible tone of regret.
That, however, miraculously transitions into immense pride and hope, when he starts talking about his kids – “I have been training them at home as well, albeit with indigenous methods. We can afford the markers, cones and other accessories for football training, so I utilise whatever is available – wooden sticks as markers, empty noodle boxes as cones.
‘Football Is in Our Blood'
Besides the parents, a current national champion also arrived at the stadium – ATK Mohun Bagan’s midfielder, Puitea.
Reason? Following the same theme, his love for the sport.
In an attempt to explain the bond between the state and the game, Puitea says “Simply put – football is in our blood. Take a walk down a road, and you will find kids playing. They will not have shoes on their feet, but the ball will be there. My brother is only four years old, and every single day, we have to tell him to stop playing football inside the house. That is all he wants to do.”
Hmar makes it even simpler, with an analogy.
Irrespective of whatever our Chief Minister does, you will not find his mention in the national dailies. Yet, when Jeje Lalpekluha scores a goal, he is in mentioned in the news channels, and his name appears in the papers.Tetea Hmar, Mizoram Football Association Secretary
For the state, football happens to be a gateway to country-wide eminence and recognition. With the Naupang League around, a pathway has been laid that directs towards success, albeit requiring dedication and arduous commitment in transit. Jejes and Puiteas are in the making, as football, here in Mizoram, acts as a societal unifier.
Not bad for a 'religion', right?